For several weeks now, a group of anti-Brexit protesters have found a way of regularly appearing on television news. They wave banners and chant slogans and try to disturb politicians being interviewed. Most MPs take it in good part. Jacob Rees-Mogg even expressed his admiration for those able to shout ‘Stop Brexit’ in a way that is picked up by microphones a hundred yards away. But when pro-Brexit protesters called Anna Soubry a Nazi, dozens of MPs wrote to the police asking them to intervene. The police issued new guidelines to officers.
Broadcasters have been conducting interviews with politicians on the green outside parliament for decades. Protesters have rarely interfered. That they do so now on a daily basis is a reflection of the coarsening of political debate.
Seven years ago, John McDonnell was talking about the need to break from civility and revive the politics of protest. ‘I want to be in a situation,’ he said, ‘where no Tory MP, no coalition minister, can travel anywhere in the country or show their face anywhere in public without being challenged, without direct action.’ He later mentioned that one attendee at a meeting would like to ‘lynch’ Esther McVey, the then work and pensions secretary. This he thought was funny. Since becoming shadow chancellor he has been careful not to repeat such remarks, but he has never apologised for them.
Once, anyone actively encouraging hostility would have been precluded from a front-bench position. Times change. Disliking one’s opponent is becoming a political virtue. The phrase ‘Remoaner’ is used to insult, rather than challenge. Laura Pidcock, a new Labour MP, says that Conservatives are the ‘enemy’ and boasts that she has ‘absolutely no intention of being friends with any of them’. This is a classic example of the problem: refusing to accept that people of goodwill can disagree. Social media has encouraged this trend. Studies show that the most intemperate messages garner the most ‘likes’ and followers. This encourages people towards hysteria. Intelligent, previously moderate people are being drawn in and losing their composure.
Twitter is becoming a playground where insults supplant debate. The anonymity it offers — and the way remarks are published directly under those of your target — brings out the worst in people. A recent study revealed that Diane Abbott receives 80 messages of abuse on Twitter each day.
But social media also offers politicians the ability to communicate directly with voters. This is what helped the Corbyn project, persuading tens of thousands of like-minded people to join the Labour party, choose its leader and change its nature. Social media can allow politicians to set the news agenda — witness Donald Trump’s election victory.
Responding to Trump with hysteria and name-calling has proved to be ineffective. The opponents of populism, in much of Europe, have still failed to learn this lesson. Too many of them are, themselves, losing their composure on Twitter.
It is no longer possible to dismiss social media as an irrelevance. It now shapes political life and discourse and will continue to do so, and this inevitably helps the return of tribalism. One of the idiots hurling abuse at Ms Soubry was filming himself so he could post it on his own social media account. Tommy Robinson, who is attempting to fill the vacuum left by the collapse of the BNP, also likes to film his various antics to please his army of followers. He is quite capable of organising them to attend protests where racist chants are routine.
A growing number of MPs now say they meet constituents who draw their news and views from social media. These people express concerns about problems that turn out to be concocted — fake news. It’s wrong to assume this only affects the ignorant. A great many highly educated people convince themselves of absurdities which they end up believing and repeating. But this is unlikely to change. To complain about this is, as an MP once said of the press, like a ship’s captain complaining about the sea.
Politics is a rough trade and politicians need thick skins. When Tories complained in a cabinet meeting about abuse in the 2017 general election, Ruth Davidson, the leader of the Scottish Tories, told them to ‘grow a pair’ and adjust. This is an admirable attitude and explains much of her success.
In the vituperative days of the early 1980s, the late Keith Joseph had a rule: never question the motives of one’s opponents. Always remember that even those you might find hateful also want a stronger and fairer country — they just differ on the best way to achieve this. And keep in mind, said Joseph, that the most effective response to name-calling, obloquy and malice is generosity, politeness and cheerfulness. Humour, too, has a role.
Ultimately, responding to insults with more insults never changes anyone’s mind. It’s bad politics. Listening and being fair-minded has always been the best way to win people over — and in an age of rising hysteria and intolerance, this offers an opportunity. When the quality of debate descends to the gutter, there is always the chance for decent MPs, from any party or perspective, to raise the tone. Politicians who do so will be, in the end, the ones who change people’s minds, win arguments and carry the day.